08 December 2016

Homily - 8 December 2016 - The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

Dear brothers and sisters,

Every good parent or teacher makes use – from time to time – of an uncomfortable question to point out the wrongdoing of a child or pupil. Is this not what the Lord God did today when he “called out to the man and asked him, ‘Where are you’” (Genesis 3:9)? It cannot be held that God did not know Adam’s physical location; to make such a claim of the omniscient Creator would be absurd. It is, rather, as Saint Ambrose says: the Lord poses “not a question, but a reproof.”[1] It is as if God asks of Adam, “From what condition of goodness, beatitude and grace … have you fallen into this state of misery? You have forsaken eternal life. You have entombed yourself in the ways of sin and death.”

The Church’s tradition calls this forsaking of eternal life the original sin by which

man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good. Constituted in a state of original holiness, man was destined to be fully “divinized” by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to “be like God,” but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God.”[2]

It is this same forsaking of eternal life, this same original sin, that each one of us has inherited from Adam and Eve, our first parents. This is why Saint Paul says that “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men have sinned” (Romans 5:12).

If we spend even a small amount of time considering our own sinfulness, we know the effects of this original sin all too well. “It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin.”[3] It is this inclination toward sin from which each of us suffers and why Saint Augustine famously called us walking fomes peccati, walking tinderboxes of sin.[4]

This seems to us a strange message to hear as we find ourselves in the midst of our preparations for Christmas. We expect to hear a more hopeful and joyful message, forgetting that “oft hope is born, when all is forlorn.”[5] The truth of our fallen and sinful condition lies at the heart of the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement to the Blessed Virgin Mary: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus” (Luke 1:31). When Gabriel spoke to Saint Joseph, he told the husband of Mary to name her child Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

The Archangel’s announcements to both Saint Joseph and to Holy Mary come as the great and long-awaited prophecy which the Lord God said that vile and wicked serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers” (Genesis 3:15). Christ Jesus, the offspring of Mary, the second Eve and whose Birth we celebrate at Christmas, struck at the serpent and defeated him with the weapon of the Cross. This is why Saint Paul says “as one man’s trespass led to the condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men” (Romans 5:18). The message of our sinful condition, then, and of our salvation from it in Christ, lies at the heart of the Advent message; to ignore this salvation from sin and death, is to rob Christmas of its beauty, of its wonder, and of its joy.

Today we celebrate a foundational aspect in the life of one of those whom Jesus saved from sin as we give thanks to God for the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was not until 1854 that Mother Church finally defined what had long been held and believed by the faithful when Pope Pius IX solemnly declared, “the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, was, by a unique grace and privilege of Almighty God in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”[6] Because of her role as the Mother of God and in order to prepare a worthy ark for the Word made Flesh, “Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christ’s victory over sin: she was persevered from all stain of original sin and by a special grace committed no sin of any kind during her whole earthly life.”[7] It is this preservation from original sin and from its effects that the Church calls Mary’s “previent grace,” the grace given to Mary before her acceptance of the divine plan because she accepted the divine plan.[8] Mary, then, “is not merely the greatest of the saints but something altogether different and unique.”[9]

You and I, of course, have not been so graced. The Lord still calls out to us, asking, “Are you trapped in the imagined godlikeness that the serpent falsely promised you?”[10] His simple question, “Where are you?” is really an invitation for us “to make admission of [our] faults” and be reconciled to God so we might lift our eyes towards him and gaze upon the beauty of his face.[11]

Like Adam and Eve, we are often hesitant to admit our sin to the Lord; we hide from him and so deprive ourselves of his presence. But the Lord, in his infinite mercy, does not abandon us; rather, he sent his Son, born of the Virgin Mary, to call out to us, “From what condition of goodness, beatitude and grace … have you fallen into this state of misery? You have forsaken eternal life. You have entombed yourself in the ways of sin and death. Let me lead you forth into the kingdom of light” (cf. Colossians 1:13).

Mary shows us how to listen to the call of the Lord, how to give a generous response to him, and how to entrust ourselves entirely to the Lord’s loving mercy so that we might no longer live in a miserable condition. In these days of Advent, she calls us to place ourselves “within the orbit of her holy life.”[12] She desires to enfold us within the mantle of her love and to look upon us as our Mother (cf. John 19:27). It is within the orbit of Mary’s holy life that the disciple of Jesus wishes to enter; “here he wants to dwell, to breathe, to become quiet, and to receive comfort and strength to continue his life with renewed courage.”[13] Let each of us strive to wait with Mary so that we might welcome her Child when he comes and say with her, “May it be done to me according to your word” and live a life “holy and without blemish before him” (Luke 1:38; Ephesians 1:4). Amen.

[1] Saint Ambrose of Milan, De Paradiso, 14.70. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament Vol. I: Genesis 1-11. Andrew Louth, ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2001), 84.
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 398. Emphasis original.
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 405.
[4] Saint Augustine of Hippo, De Continentia, 3.
[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings, 5.9, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 859.
[6] Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus.
[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 411.
[8] Roman Missal, Prayer Over the Offerings of the Mass for Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
[9] Romano Guardini, The Art of Praying: The Principles and Methods of Christian Prayer. Leopold of Loewenstein-Wertheim, trans. (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press), 155.
[10] Saint Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis, 2.26.1. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament Vol. I, 84.
[11] Saint John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis, 17.22. In ibid., 85.
[12] Romano Guardini, The Art of Praying, 159.
[13] Ibid.

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